“A really good cup of coffee; they were always in search of this. It could make or break a restaurant or inn in their estimation. Can they make coffee? Is this place worth coming back to?”
Another gem of an essay from my mom, written in February of 2000, called “In Search Of Coffee.”
Oh god, I really am my mother now.
Just glancing through my photos over the years I have…a lot of photos of coffee. I am always in search of coffee, and with apologies to my fair city, I do not run on Dunkin. I like to explore the hidden gems of Boston or wherever I happen to be. George Howell in Downtown Crossing, Longfellows in East Cambridge, Nine Bar in Somerville (which is now my top-of-the-list favorite, since we moved in up the street). I don’t want what’s readily available: I want what’s worth searching for.
Friends, this barely gets us halfway through the coffee photos of 2018. I think we’ve seen enough. You get the idea. If my mom had lived to the age of the iPhone, I hope and imagine we’d be texting each other photos of coffee from around the world.
“Before they were married,” Mom writes, “she had impressed upon him how completely uncouth it was to drink coffee out of vending machines.” Whatever her strategy, it worked. I cannot imagine my father drinking coffee out of a vending machine. By the time I was made, the coffee rituals had been firmly implanted. I have strong sense-memories of waking up as a child to the roar of beans being ground (in an ancient Krups grinder I staunchly held onto myself until two years ago) and the smell of coffee brewing. It was my dad who, when he deemed me old enough, taught me the ways of the coffee-making, but I knew that my mother was the wellspring of all the enthusiasm, “the one who taught him the art,” as she put it. But she taught him well. “He knew that proper measurements were of critical importance, as was the temperature of the water, the freshness of the beans – ground just before making – the slight wetting of the grounds to ‘burst’ the flavor before filling the filter with water.” These words echo in my head as I make my own pour-over every morning.
I grew quickly accustomed to the fact that, when we were traveling, the search for coffee (not just coffee, but “decent” coffee) was going to take as long as it was going to take, and it was best not to object. I remember a particular tromp through Venice on a cold and rainy morning, my mother somehow less than satisfied with every prospect that greeted our eyes. Having now traveled extensively in Italy as a coffee hound, myself, I’m not sure how this is possible, given that bars serving coffee are basically impossible to avoid in any Italian city. She eventually discovered, as I recall, the trick to getting her coffee just right in Italy: order a cappuccino AND an espresso, then pour the espresso into the foamy cappuccino. The 1990s equivalent of adding an extra shot to get the strength you want (something that I now do pretty much as a rule - I always regret it when I don’t). I remember watching her do this with some mixture of admiration and envy. Here was a woman who knew what she wanted and how to get it. Some things are worth paying extra for. Some things are good enough that it’s worth bothering someone for a little special treatment.
That was the thing about good coffee - it does have the power to turn my mood around. The first cup that I make in the morning with my paper filter is one of the purest and most immediate joys I will experience that day. Not just drinking it, but grinding the beans, smelling that initial ‘burst’ as I pour the water over the grounds. I didn’t really get it as a kid, the urgency of this daily cup of decent coffee, but now I am probably just as obnoxious about it as my mom was.
Later in her life, beyond the days of traipsing through various European cities in search of good coffee, into the years of cancer treatments that involved varying levels of deprivation and asceticism, coffee fell in and out of favor at our house. During the macrobiotic diet period (or as my brother named it when writing about it for his 1st-grade class, “Diet. Big Diet.”) there was only smelly tea, and caffeine would then migrate to and from the “no” list for her remaining years. I think she always missed it when she wasn’t drinking it, though, and she ultimately returned to it, though not without mixed feelings. In a later essay she called “Figuring out what matters”, she landed on this thought about her ultimate fate: “How about this then for our millennium resolution: Seek peace and live fearlessly in the knowing that we are guided by a greater force that will take us only where we are supposed to go. Only where what we have to learn will be revealed to us so that we get it. And trust that there are no demerits for drinking coffee and eating ice cream. All is well.” There’s a thought to live by: drinking coffee as an act of self-love, an act of faith in the notion that you are right where you’re supposed to be. I’ll take an extra shot.